UNC researcher talks about monitoring children’s online relationships


Parents have made their children part of their school routine this semester, but a UNC researcher says many are missing one thing. Dorothee EspelageUNC education professor says this school year, it’s more important than ever to talk to your child about healthy relationships.

Although the number of online relationships for young people continues to grow, there are still few or no programs in the education system to teach students about healthy relationships. Espelage spoke with 97.9 The Hill about how to approach dating teens today.

Espelage’s research focuses on violence prevention in schools. She specializes in prevention sciences, school-based interventions and social-emotional learning.

Dorothy Espelage, Professor of Education (Photo via UNC School of Education)

Espelage said today that many young people use social media as an important part of their relationships.

“Teenagers are dating people they may not have met in person, who they’ve met on social platforms,” ​​Espelage said. “It happened before COVID, but it escalated during COVID.”

Espelage said parents may also believe their child isn’t dating because they don’t have traditional dates. The accessibility of online sites, whether for dating or not, has led to more virtual interactions and communications.

“It might not be your way of dating for movies and dinner, but they talk to people online,” Espelage said. “Parents need to continue to be hypervigilant – monitoring who they talk to and who they interact with.”

Espelage said that as more teens engage in online relationships, emotional manipulation and controlling behaviors become more prevalent. Espelage said that worried him, especially after students returned to more in-person interactions.

“As children return to school in high schools and on college campuses, we are concerned that we may not have the conflict resolution skills to manage peer relationships as well as dating,” Espelage said.

Another challenge is how schools are equipped to provide social and emotional environments. While many relationships can happen online, there are also in-person aspects to how children navigate dating, which can take place at school.

“I think parents can’t rely on the school to teach these skills to their kids and teenagers and I know parents are stressed – we’re stressed as a nation,” Espelage said. “But we have to assume the school won’t have that kind of programming unless we have a bit more stability in K-12 environments and even higher education.”

Espelage said some superintendents, teachers and parents think the K-12 framework should involve a discussion about how to build healthy relationships. Others, however, do not believe this is within the purview of the education system and would like to keep these matters in-house.

Espelage said she thinks it’s important for parents to be a role model for their children by having open discussions about the relationship dynamics they see online or in the media.

“If they don’t get it from you, and they don’t get it from health education classes for the most part in this state, they get it through social media — TikTok.”

If implemented in an educational setting, Espelage said the discussion of teen dating violence prevention would fall under a health education curriculum. In North Carolina, health education is not mandatory to attend at all levelsso that parents can choose to withdraw their children from certain programs.

Espelage has not added any in-state relationship programs regarding LGBTQ+ dating, which is a challenge for many parents and students.

As a researcher and practitioner in the field, Espelage said she has tried to move the discussion of healthy relationships to settings outside of school, including sports, after-school programs and camps.

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